Government | Regulation

State of the Nation: Senate system not broken - Senator Mitch Fifield

“The Senate is the most misunderstood of all Australia’s 15 legislative chambers,” Manager of Government Business in the Senate, Senator the Hon. Mitch Fifield has told CEDA’s 2015 State of the Nation conference.

Speaking on a panel to discuss Senate reform, Mr Fifield said the Senate received a notoriously bad rap, but he disagreed with The Australian newspaper, editor-at-large, Paul Kelly’s assessment that the system is broken.


The Senate is a “house of review, with 16 fit-for-purpose Senate committees,” he said.

“The Senate has always been evolving. The system of voting has always been evolving.

“(But) politics is always governed by the iron laws of arithmetic – you always need 50 per cent plus one.”

In addition he said: “In a chamber where you don’t have the numbers, you need a responsible opposition.”

Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Senator the Hon. Penny Wong said: “Our Senate was established to protect and promote the interests of smaller and less powerful colonies (soon to become States) in the new Parliament.”


“The powers that could be exercised by the Senate were one of the most contested issues in the decade leading to Federation . . . and the so-called compromise of 1891 led to the Senate exercising most, but not all of the powers exercised by the House,” she said.

She said this makes the Australian Senate “the second most powerful Upper House in the world, after the US Senate”. 

“Frustrations experienced by modern governments are a design feature, not an unintended consequence,” she said.

Ms Wong said the recommendations in the report from the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters were the “the most significant changes proposed in more than two decades” and for this reason Labor was “proceeding cautiously”.  

Palmer United Party Leader, Clive Palmer said: “Reform should mean making things better, not worse. It doesn’t mean fixing the result.”

“The best reform would be to limit Members of Parliament to two terms. We might get some turnover in this place, and more new ideas,” he said.

Mr Palmer said the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters are “unconstitutional” and would serve to entrench power with one major party, to the disadvantage of smaller parties and independents such as Senator Nick Xenophon.

“We do need to deal with the problem of ‘preference whispering’ and the outcome distortions created by cascading preferences,” Independent Senator for South Australia, Nick Xenophon said.

Mr Xenophon said that one way forward would be to “require people to put at least three above the line, and 10 or even 12 below the line,” to help voters consider the options.

“Issues of voting reform are important, but (changes) should be done with respect for the role of minor parties, micro-parties and independents,” he said.